The Gift of Gab (or Is It Just Blarney?)

Can being held upside down and backward from the top of a tall castle to kiss a rock really bring you the ability to talk up a storm? Well, Blarney Castle’s association with the gift of gab does go back a long way. The popular version has it that Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) invented the notion in a fit of exasperation at then–Lord Blarney’s tendency to prattle on at great length without ever agreeing to anything she wanted. The custom of actually kissing the stone, though, is less than a century old. Nobody knows quite when, how, or why it started, but around here they’ve got a thousand possible tales, some involving witches and others the crusaders. But don’t believe them—it’s all a bunch of . . . .

Cork: the Rebel City

Travel in County Cork today, and all that appears in front of you are rolling green hills and bucolic farmscapes. But this county was once at the heart of the battle for Ireland’s soul.

For centuries, the county had a reputation for defiance and revolt. Once the seat of power in South Munster, it changed hands many times as the English and Irish battled for control. Devastated by the Great Famine, Cork became a center of the 19th-century Fenian movement, when the label “Rebel Cork” was first widely used.

It certainly lived up to the name during Ireland’s 20th-century battle for independence. It was a battle of wills, and Cork refused to give in.

The British troops occupying Cork—a paramilitary force nicknamed the “Black and Tans” for the color of their uniforms—were among the most repressive in the country. The struggle came to a head in 1920 when Thomas MacCurtain, mayor of Cork City, was killed by the Black and Tans. His successor, Terence MacSwiney, was arrested, and later died in a London prison after a hunger strike lasting 75 days.

On December 11th of that year, after an attack by the IRA, the British forces set fire to Cork city center, apparently as payback. The library, the City Hall, and almost all the buildings on St. Patrick Street were burned to the ground. More than 300 buildings were destroyed in the ensuing conflagration—virtually the entire city was smoldering rubble. As the fires blazed, two men suspected to be members of the IRA were shot as they slept, also allegedly by the occupying military troops.

The atrocity left a bitter legacy, ensuring that the battle would wage on in Cork, even as peace talks took hold elsewhere in Ireland. It ensured that Cork would resist any peace agreements to the end, even a treaty negotiated by Cork native son Michael Collins. And it ensured that Cork natives would embrace their identity as Rebel Cork forevermore.

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